The school year has begun and many students will be surprised when they go through the lunch line. For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing an overhaul of school-lunch guidelines. New nutrition standards set calorie limits based on grade level, reduce sodium levels, ban trans fats, allow only nonfat and low-fat milk, require fruits and vegetables are both offered daily, and substantially increase whole grains.
These and other changes are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. I applaud the federal government for taking this important step that allows schools to create and reinforce healthy eating habits. Texas has the fifth- highest rate of child food insecurity in the country, and meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program may be the only food these children get all day.
A school lunch of pizza sticks, a banana, raisins and whole milk under the old guidelines will now be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, a whole wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi and low-fat milk. This change will help more than 2.4 million Texas students who receive a free or reduced-price school lunch lead healthier, more active lives — in and out of the classroom.
Similar changes will be required for the School Breakfast Program in the fall of 2013. However, only 56 percent of children who receive free and reduced-price lunch in Texas also participate in the breakfast program. While breakfast is the most important meal of the day, stigma and transportation barriers often keep eligible students from eating a free breakfast at school.
The Texas Hunger Initiative — a statewide anti-hunger organization within the Baylor University School of Social Work — is working with school districts across the state to increase participation in child nutrition programs such as the School Breakfast Program. The increased use of innovative breakfast delivery models, including Breakfast in the Classroom and Grab and Go Breakfast, provides convenience to students who no longer must arrive early. It also reduces the whole stigma of school breakfast.
Through our partnership with Share Our Strength — the nation’s largest child anti-hunger organization — we launched the Texas No Kid Hungry campaign last school year and continue our work to ensure that Texas children have consistent access to nutritious meals that will allow them to be successful in life.
We are just beginning to work with school districts statewide to implement the new lunch nutrition standards and will do the same next school year when the new school breakfast guidelines go into effect. If you have children who eat school lunch, encourage them to try the fruits, vegetables and other offerings served this year. If your children don’t eat school lunch, have them give it a try. I bet they will be pleasantly surprised.
Jeremy K. Everett is director of The Texas Hunger Initiative, a project of the Baylor University School of Social Work.